I was reminded recently in cheerfully abusive terms by my colleague Gareth Vaughan of a headline I had, in a fit of madness, chosen for a ‘scene setter’ article I penned in January this year.
“Here’s hoping for a stable and boring 2020", I had said, in a way that any confirmed pessimists would have immediately decided had condemned us to a year of the very opposite nature.
Colleague Gareth suggested if I was intending to proffer any views on next year, I might like to headline it: “Here’s hoping for chaos”.
But, darn it, I shall not be beaten. So, as I turn to a review of this year – and then in a subsequent article look ahead to next year - I will wish for better things and to heck with the consequences!
This year then. What a year. I did something last New Year’s Eve I had not previously done, and that was spend it in Auckland. And I spent it with a lot of people. I braved the masses in Queen Street. Then I braved the masses inside the SkyCity casino (dropping an unfeasibly large sum of money in a surprisingly short space of time). Upon re-emerging empty-pocketed I then braved the by-now even more massed masses in Queen Street. Finally, I took refuge in the refined climes of Bowen Avenue above central Auckland, with commanding views of the madness.
One to remember - or never forget
There’s been plenty of New Years Eves I haven’t really remembered at all (ahem!) But I will always remember the eve of 2020, because the memories carry that whole sense of: “Oh, if we all only knew what we were about to walk slap, bang into.”
Sometimes, of course, it is better to NOT KNOW what is coming and how bad it might be. That can help you get through it.
And how have we ‘got through it’ so far?
If I were to sum up this country’s response to Covid, I would say this: We were hopelessly unprepared, we made all sorts of mistakes along the way and at times we stumbled ahead. The Government made instinctive decisions that proved to be right, (well in my view anyway) and we (“team of 5 million”) got in behind those decisions and scrambled really effectively, learning lessons and adapting as we went. It was ‘kiwi ingenuity’ to use that old term, almost.
We had luck though. Plenty.
Our fighting spirit came through
The upshot is that as 2020 comes to a close, we can reflect that tough as it was we’ve fought through it well. We are in so much better shape than so many places and in way better shape than ever seemed possible in those alarming days of March.
Then really anything seemed possible, even an outright 1930s-style depression.
Economists did their best undertaker impressions, giving ‘best guess’ estimates of how bad things might be, but mostly conceding that their guesses were as good as the next person’s in such a volatile and unpredictable environment.
The key thing was always going to be how bad unemployment would get. Some economists went so far as to tip double-figure unemployment.
But all through March and April the stimulus was poured in by the Government and the Reserve Bank.
Clearly, it reassured people – and let’s face it back in March people needed reassurance.
So, what are some of the key things that got us to the position we are currently in?
We managed to knock back the virus (I confess, I didn’t think we would be able to) – to the point where the economy has been ‘open’ for much more of this year than the experts were projecting at the time we went into the Lockdown Major in March.
We came out of lockdown happy to spend money. This was a big surprise to me and while economists expected some ‘letting off of steam’ I think they too have been very surprised at the way the willingness to spend has endured. The fact that far fewer people did lose their jobs than earlier expected helped a lot.
We kept people in work
And yes, about that – far fewer people lost their jobs than was earlier expected. The wage subsidy and measures such as the mortgage payment ‘holiday’ looked as though they might merely delay the inevitable. But, in reality they appear to have bought time – time during which conditions improved. The fact that people then came out of lockdown willing to spend money helped keep the economic wheels turning and helped keep people in their jobs.
So, points two and three above fed into each other nicely. Virtuous circle and all that.
And then there have been exports. These have held up really well notwithstanding the various difficulties that have been caused by border closures. Among the various commodities, the global dairy prices have remained reassuringly stable.
Just on unemployment and why it has not been anything like as bad as thought. One of the things that did surprise, no, actually shock, me as I wondered around town after lockdown was how many places I saw that advertising for staff. Didn’t expect that at all. It suggests to me that while an official unemployment figure of just over 4% pre-lockdown painted a strong, but not full, employment picture, the reality is there may have been a fair bit more work available – for the right people – than official statistics suggested. In other words we may have had more ‘capacity constraints’ in our labour market than was officially recognised before the Covid crisis hit.
The significance of that of course would be that skilled people losing jobs in areas like tourism were therefore quickly getting snapped up for new jobs and perhaps these new jobs were jobs that hadn’t been advertised as such because the ‘right’ people were not seen as being available.
Hey, big spenders
On the willingness to spend that we’ve seen, I do find it intriguing. Where has the money come from? Earlier in the year the thought would have been that businesses selling essentials like food would have continued to do okay, but a shop selling something like furniture for example, well, no. Who’s going to buy a new lounge suite during a pandemic? Well, refreshingly large numbers of people did.
What happened then? Has the willingness to spend come from a sort of “oh, to heck with this, we’ve been locked up, pushed around, scared of this darn virus, life is worth living, let’s spend!” Or have we actually been underestimating just how much Kiwis spend offshore in ‘normal times’ on their annual holiday getaways? I suspect that there’s been a rather bigger well of money there to draw on than we might have thought.
Anyway, wrapping all this together – it has been a traumatic year, but as a country we’ve come through it much better than might have been expected. Heck, we’ve even managed to create a new housing crisis. Life must be returning to normal!
And providing we can keep our borders secure against an increasing wave of Covid internationally, we should be able to enjoy a relaxing summer at home and celebrate the end of a year we will be happy to see the back of possibly in the same way this cursed year was brought in – with crowds of non-socially distanced people gathering in Queen Street and the like. Er, but I think I’ll be skipping it this time around.
Then there’s next year. I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on that. And yes, I will be hoping for something better – and I’ll say that! Let’s leave the chaos with 2020!
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